Batman's Case Files: Immortality versus Extinction

Book excerpt: Is Ra's al Ghul immortal? Would Erikson call him supernatural?

Posted Aug 09, 2012

Ra's al Ghul, a.k.a. Henri Ducard (played by Liam Neeson), tries to become Bruce Wayne's father figure in Batman Begins (2005).

Excerpt from the book Batman and Psychology: A Dark and Stormy Knight.
© 2012 Travis Langley (Wiley-Blackwell)

Case File 12–1: Ra’s al Ghul

Real name: If he has a name earlier than Ra’s al Ghul (translated in the comics as “The Demon’s Head”), we don’t know it for certain. Pronounced “razz” and “rahz” in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Rises; “raysh” in Batman: The Animated Series and by creator Dennis O’Neil.

First appearance: Batman #232 (1971, June)

Origin: Born in a tribe of Arabian desert nomads centuries before he first encounters Batman in the cave beneath Wayne Manor, scientist Ra’s al Ghul discovers the Lazarus Pits with their ability to heal wounds and regenerate those at death’s door.[i] He travels the world, fights wars, learns combat techniques, expands his scientific knowledge, and amasses vast wealth and power. The international criminal cartel he creates known as The Demon includes the mysterious League of Assassins[ii] (Batman Begins’ League of Shadows).

“Everything I have done, I do for the greater good.”

—Ra’s al Ghul in Batman: Death and the Maidens (2004)

Whether he’s 450 or 700[iii] varies depending on who writes the story. Creator Denny O’Neil depicts him as 450–500[iv] with Ra’s himself saying he’s lived so long, he lost track during the Black Plague. During his centuries, he sees generations of people come and go, civilizations rise and fall, while the planet spins on. Earth itself becomes his only lasting companion. He comes to see himself as a physician who must tend to his patient, the natural world, and a warrior who fights for its sake. The human race he sees as a collective body with some parts better, more useful than others and many members as malignant cells that need to be cut out. Ra’s sees Batman’s refusal to kill and his efforts to save any life as shortsighted defense of the species’ cancers. A ruthless environmentalist, Ra’s al Ghul would eradicate billions to give the planet a good cleansing. “When a forest grows too wild, a purging fire is inevitable and natural.”[v]

“We know tricks—small cracks in science and nature through which we have learned to slip—that rejuvenate our bodies and minds. But no mortal can count himself worthy of infinite life without a greater goal sustaining his soul.”

—Ra’s al Ghul in Year One: Batman/Ra’s al Ghul (2006)

As science extends life span, improving both the quantity and quality of the years we might live, new patterns of later life emerge. Genetic engineering, biomedical rejuvenation, and nanotechnology could conceivably lengthen human life to the point that no current perspective on aging will apply.[vi] In his own later years, psychologist Erik Erikson acknowledged that his eight-stage theory of psychosocial development could use the addition of a ninth for extreme old age, as the average life span had lengthened enough during his time to open up new avenues for investigation. His widow and regular collaborator Joan Erikson fleshed out his notes to speculate on this unnamed ninth stage in an expanded edition of his book The Life Cycle Completed.[vii] In their eighties and nineties, elders commonly struggle with their losses of independence, abilities both physical and mental, and significant people from their lives. Even those in the best health know that death approaches. Individuals with great trust and hope see continued purpose to their lives and face this stage by seeking enlightenment. Despair figures prominently in the stage’s unsuccessful path, a different kind of despair from that of the preceding Integrity vs. Despair crisis, one focused on losses and fear of death’s finality.

Some developmental psychologists have called this stage Immortality vs. Extinction.[viii] Once past the average age of death, the eldest of the elders have outlived the majority of people they’ve ever known. Looking outside mortal life for meaning, those who achieve a sense of immortality enjoy the life they have and do not spend their days terrified about their upcoming demise because they see that they personally will continue to exist and matter beyond death. They expect continued existence by living on through their children, contributions they’ve made to their community, lessons they’ve taught other people, physical markers like a monument in city park, the chain of nature (decomposing body joins the earth and nourishes new life), supernatural presence as a ghost or psychic residue, or unearthly afterlife. Those on the extinction side enjoy no such solace. They despair that they will simply cease to exist in every way, that they might as well never have lived.

Ra’s ages and rejuvenates himself so many times. Where another person outliving eras might grow indifferent to anyone or anything outside himself, inoculated by the centuries to grief or any concern for all those mortals who blink by as scenery, Ra’s al Ghul casts his gaze across the world and its history. He sees beauty. He’s oddly hopeful that his efforts, pitiless as they may be toward individuals caught in his path, can ultimately secure the world’s future, and from the first time Talia tells him about her bat-masked hero, Ra’s has hope that this dark detective can help secure the legacy both by fathering al Ghul’s grandchildren and by running al Ghul’s organization to fulfill the old man’s global dream.

“I have too few years left, daughter! I have gone to the Lazarus Pit often—too often! Soon it will no longer restore life to my body! I must begin putting into effect my plan—my plans to restore harmony to our sad planet! I have been called a criminal and genius—and I am neither! I am an artist! I have a vision—of an Earth as clean and pure as a snow-swept mountain or the desert outside!”

—Ra’s al Ghul in Batman #244 (1972)


[i] Batman: Birth of the Demon (1992).

[ii] First appearance: Strange Adventures #215 (1968).

[iii] Batman Annual #25 (2006).

[iv] Azrael #6 (1995); Batman: Birth of the Demon (1992).

[v] Batman Begins (2005 motion picture).

[vi] De Grey, A. (2007). Ending aging: The rejuvenation breakthroughs that could reverse human aging in our lifetime. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

[vii] Erikson, E. H., & Erikson, J. M. (1998). The life cycle completed (extended version). New York: Norton.

[viii] Newman, B. M., & Newman, P. R. (1991). Development through life: A psychosocial approach (5th ed.). Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.